Turning Pot into Medicine 

Marijuana strains that provide medicinal relief without getting you stoned are rising in popularity, thanks to the groundbreaking work of cannabis testing labs.

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"My son would be crying and laughing at the same time," David continued. "I have video of him screaming and tripping out of his mind. We had to get his liver tested every six months. The medicine was killing him. He'd had a grand mal seizure that lasted an hour and a half. He'd been in an ambulance 45 times in the last year. Seeing your son in an ambulance — it just kills you. I lost my ex-wife, my car, my business, my family, my life."

David told his story to Andrew DeAngelo, the younger brother of Stephen DeAngelo, founder of Harborside. Andrew DeAngelo is a manager at Harborside who leads a monthly support group for seniors and families using medical marijuana. Jayden's doctors at UC San Francisco had referred David to Harborside. "They told me, 'Yeah you should try medical marijuana,'" David said. He was one of many parents quietly being referred to Harborside by UCSF for treatment of serious illnesses and symptoms that don't respond to modern medicine.

Mainly, it was for appetite stimulation for kids with cancer, and pain management in paraplegic children, Andrew DeAngelo recalled. There'd be no smoking or vaporizing for the kids, of course. DeAngelo recommended edible cannabis or tinctures — extractions of the plant in glycerin or alcohol. Kids need just a drop. Many of the tinctures are barely psychoactive. DeAngelo started seeing parents who had kids with epilepsy, or autism, or a combination of both. "When I met Jason, he was the parent that was suffering the most out of all the parents I had met so far," DeAngelo said.

Harborside gave David a tincture that was supposedly high in cannabidiol. Abbreviated as CBD, cannabidiol is produced by pot plants and has a multitude of medicinal properties. It's anti-inflammatory, for example. And the federal government has patented it as a neuroprotectant for strokes. But it hasn't been developed by pharmaceutical companies. You can't buy a CBD pill at Walgreens.

Marijuana that contains CBD seems to modulate the body's ability to maintain homeostasis — that is, an internal balance. It's been used since biblical times to treat nervous disorders like epilepsy. It's thought to help restore balance in the nervous system as well as the immune and digestive systems. According to lab research, CBD dampens the activity of the human nervous system at the site of what are called the "CB1" and "CB2" nerve cell receptors. These receptors are spread throughout the body's nervous system.

Marijuana with high levels of cannabidiol also worked for David's son. CBD is thought to act like a precision-guided warm blanket, calming Jayden's overactive nervous system at key receptor sites. "Jayden had a seizure every day of his life, until the first day I gave him CBD," David said. "It was the first four days in his life that he had went seizure-free. I was crying. I was happy crying instead of sad crying, which was new."

The tincture worked for four months, but the second batch from the same tincture-maker didn't work. "For two months my son started getting bad," David said. Jayden's doctors thought it might be a case of "honeymoon stage": Some mainstream drugs are known to quell seizures for a month or two, and then seem to lose effectiveness.

But David had another idea. What if Harborside tested the tincture to make sure it was the same one as before? "I had done my research," he said. "I knew they tested."

In fact, it was one of the few places in the world where such a thing was possible.


Oakland's Steep Hill lab is at the center of cannabis testing in the Bay Area and California, and is now recognized as a world leader in medical-marijuana research. Steep Hill's current location is shiny, clean, and huge, with room to grow in a large, gated, one-story office space across Interstate 880 from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. It's a long way from the dog-hair-ridden, one-bedroom Emeryville apartment where Steep Hill started in 2008.

Thought to be the first of its kind, the marijuana-testing project was launched by David Lampach, a young, self-taught grower, and Addison DeMoura, a fellow cannabis science enthusiast. The two convinced Stephen DeAngelo to personally invest in what would be called Analytical Labs.

DeAngelo, a 54-year-old, Washington, DC native, believes that if cannabis is medicine — as it is by law in California — it should be tested like any other medicine. Harborside backed the two young men, who rented an apartment in Emeryville and bought a gas chromatograph. The expensive lab device can determine the chemical composition of many substances. Lampach and DeMoura taught themselves how to use it with the help of local chemists.

The Dutch had already published a method for using a gas chromatograph to assess cannabis' potency. Lampach and DeMoura adapted it, and began sampling Harborside's weed. The process involves making an extract from a sample of the strain in question, say, a couple pounds of primo OG Kush. Flowers are picked, ground, agitated in a solvent, and an extract is fed to the gas chromatograph. The process can take three days. Analytical Labs also began conducting tests for mold and bacteria, which take a week.

By spring 2009, numbers were appearing next to the display buds on Harborside's countertops: "23% THC .01% CBD," a sample might read. Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short, was among the first molecules found in pot to affect the nervous system, and it's commonly thought to cause pot's euphoric effects. A THC percentage in marijuana is similar to the idea of an alcohol percentage in adult beverages, with 23 percent THC at the top of the range for flowers. It would be akin to a strong whiskey, perhaps, and thus not recommended for new patients.

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